Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Parenting, God, Jethro ... And My Son

Here’s the best insight into parenthood I’ve found in these past thirteen years. It started one day when we were teaching Carmi how to ride a bike. It’s lasted pretty well, though it's receiving a reboot just now. But I’ll get to that.

Josephine and I were teaching Carmi to ride a bike and we went to Coram Fields. They have a big concrete area in front of the playground and our 4 year-old son was wobbling along, developing balance and confidence and slowly, he begins to scribe these circles around us. He still wobbled, but he hadn’t fallen - and the circles grew wider and wider until he set off on a loop around the perimeter of the playground and then, off he went, behind the pavilion at the far end - out of sight. And I remember jerking my head from the one side of the pavilion - the side behind which he had disappeared - to the other side of the pavilion - from which he would, surely, soon emerge. And in the seconds between him disappearing out of site and re-emerging triumphant and still upright, I had this insight. This was parenting.

You try, you help and you wait patiently hoping your son or your daughter is indeed getting it. And at a certain point, they head off behind the pavilion, wobbling and out of sight. And as a parent, you spin forward your gaze to the point where you hope they will emerge still upright, and you wait.

In that moment I prepared myself for this life of parenthood. That which I would hope to impart would change, and the thing that, on this day, was the pavilion in Coram Fields, would change. But that twin dynamic of helping, and then waiting to see if my efforts had resulted in a safe-upright child was the dynamic to which I pledged myself.

And as I’ve reflected on this model of parenting, I realised that it’s a model you can see in the opening moments of creation, and the model at play in the opening moments of this week’s Parasha. Maybe I learnt it from the Torah long before Carmi ever mounted a bicycle and hadn’t known.

Let me start with the Parasha.
We encounter Moses, this week, at the foothills of the Mountain doing his best to corral the people. Tricky business, corralling Jews. And his father in law, Yitro, arrives to help. Navol Tivol Gam Atah - You are wearing yourself out Moses, get some other people in here to provide leadership, delegate. Don’t try and solve every challenge yourself. Or Navol Tivol Gam Atah - you’ll wear out. The Rabbis spot something in the Hebrew phrasing; the word  ‘Gam’ meaning ‘also.’ Super-literally we should translate Navol Tivol Gam Atah - as ‘You will also wear out.’ ‘Also?’

Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer[1] want to know who is the also, aside from Moses, who is going to be worn out? They suggest Aharon is going to get worn out and his sons, and the 70 leaders of the tribes, and even the people themselves - everyone gets worn out if the person in charge takes too much on. It’s such an interesting spot; if you try and take on too much it’s not only you who gets worn out, but everyone around you, even the very people you are looking to take care of, get worn out by a leader who tries to do too much themselves and doesn’t delegate.

It’s a great model for a parent trying to teach a child anything. Don’t try and be everything for your child, Navol Tivol Gam Atah you’ll wear yourself out and - Gam - you’ll wear the child out also. You need to let go. You need other people but also, perhaps most of all, you just need to stand back, and let your child cycle round the back of the pavilion. Don’t wear yourself out Gam Atah.

It’s good advice, but, not quite all the way there, yet. The point of Yitro’s advice to Moses seems to be merely that other people can do the things he could do, without bothering him. The aim of the advice seems to be the creation of a perfect replica of Moses’ capacity without Moses having to do it all himself. Now that’s not bad. In parenting terms, the aim of the game would be that Carmi learns to cycle the way I can cycle. Or that if I partner with a school with teachers who teach the A, B C or the three times table, Carmi learns the A, B, C and the three times table. There’s a bit more socialisation, other people get stimulated and I don’t get worn out trying to do too much.

All of that is good. But it’s not enough. And to understand why you need to go back to the Garden of Eden.

When God places the first humans in the Garden of Eden, they have everything they could possibly want. God - and here Michael from the first series of The Good Place will serve as a perfect model - couldn’t be prouder of Gan Eden, the Good Place created for these humans -
Vayar Elohim Et Kol Asher Asah vTov Meod - And God looked at everything God had made, and it was very good.
What could possibly go wrong?
When Adam and Eve do the one thing they are commanded not to do - when they eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, God laments - the Midrash tells us - Mikonen Alav[2] God wailed for Adam - Hein Adam hayah c’echad mimenu - That hein is an Oy. Oy, so close.

Let me put it in language Carmi, I’m so sorry, almost certainly you are only going to understand into your capacious future. It’s like a young person full of love who wants to be in a relationship with another person and gives this other person everything they imagine this other person could possibly want. In the language of The Good Place, every flavour of frozen yoghurt is provided. The only problem is the other person doesn’t want someone else to choose their dessert for them. They want to choose their own dessert.

So the other person wanders off, and the lover can’t understand why their beloved isn’t interested, and the lover wails, Hein look at all the frozen yoghurt! And you still aren’t interested in me?!

It takes God a long, long time to accept that being God requires something different than providing everything that their beloved could possibly want. There is a story in the Talmud,[3] almost two thousand years old, but still a long, long time after the stories we read today, where God gets involved in an argument between the same two Rabbis who helped us understand that 'Gam' word in the story of Jethro - Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.

The content of the argument isn’t important. But Rabbi Eliezer argues one way, and everyone else argues the other. Rabbi Eliezer pleads to God to support up his position and God has Rabbi Eliezer’s back. A divine voice arrives in the study hall - ‘Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer, he is right.’ And for a moment you think that this is going to go Rabbi Eliezer’s way. But it doesn’t. Rabbi Yehoshua tells God that God doesn’t get to play a role in the arguments between Rabbis. To do Torah properly, Rabbi Yehoshua says, ‘we don’t pay attention to a Divine Voice.’ God backs down and another reports at that moment that God said, Nitzchuni Banai, Nitzchuni Banai.

Usually the phrase Nitzchuni Banai is translated, ‘My children have defeated me.’ But the Hebrew term Netzach literally means - forever. ‘My children have forevered me. My children have outlasted me or surpassed me.’ It’s an extraordinary thing for a God - who exists beyond time, who existed before time and will exist after time - to say. How can God be outlasted or forevered?
It’s taken me a while, but I think I’ve got it. I think Carmi, you’ve taught this to me. You haven’t learnt your BM portion like I would have done it. You’ve been taught, brilliantly, by Chazan Stephen Cotsen, but you haven’t even done your BM portion like Stephen would have done it. You’ve found a voice in your preparation for your BM that has is unique to your life, it’s a voice I couldn’t have dreamed of, let alone achieved.

Frankly, it was always going to be this way. Faced with a perfectly simple and straightforward option, my dear Carmi, you immediately seek out some route that I could never have seen. And sometimes, to my adult eyes, it seems pointlessly circuitous. But the point is, it’s your route. And on a day like today that experience of self-forging, of seeking out your own glorious ways of getting from A to B has stood you in a place where you can find things in your BM preparation that astound me. And I now understand this thing we say, about ‘becoming an adult’ differently, I understand parenthood differently. I even understand God differently and the very project of being a human. It’s about self-forging, it’s about transcending, outlasting and forevering the environment provided for a child.

And you’ve lit a beacon for that path today.
You’ve lit up a route that no other person in the history of humanity could have found or could ever find. - and that’s not just because you are extraordinary - though you are certainly extraordinary - it’s really because you are a child who is becoming an adult. And you’ve done this with your portion, and you’re doing it with your life.

The new thing I’ve learnt about parenting, Carmi, from watching and listening to you these past weeks, months and years, is that parenting isn’t about transferring, from me to you, the things I think are important in life. Certainly, parenting a Bar Mitzvah is no longer about how to cycle and the A, B and C, and the three times table. It’s about the space in which I can be surpassed, outlasted and forevered.

Like God, who is taught by Rabbi Yehoshua to be more than the jilted lover we meet in the Garden of Eden, you are teaching me growing up as a parent. And you, my dear son, your job is to keep looking for the roads I could never find and outlast me. Just as you have today. That’s the job for us all.

I don’t think I’m quite there yet. I don’t think, adult as both of us are, either of us is quite ready for the full-on detachment just yet. And more than that, it’s too much fun hanging out with you and witnessing your extraordinary journey.
But here’s my real prayer today - from this day onwards you should always know that my greatest joy is watching you find your own paths, and that my greatest wish for you is that you surpass me. And that when I’m old and grey - older and greyer - you’ll still want to hang out with me and light up my future with the light you spill onto the paths that only you can find.


[1] Mechilta ad loc
[2] BR 21 4 & 5 & 6
[3] BM 59b

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